The Nature of Happiness

This week, Trinity hosted a showing of the documentary film, The Race to Nowhere, about the pressure children and youth feel in America today in connection with school.  The film tells the story of overworked kids spending hours each night on homework, driven by their anxiety (an anxiety shared and often promoted by their parents) to be stellar students so that they can get into college and, ultimately, have successful careers.  The film documents the profoundly negative effects that this dynamic has on our young people and, by extension, on our society as a whole.

One of the points made in the film is that all of this anxiety to be the best, to win top academic honors and get into the best schools is really based on one dominant vision of what it means to be happy.  And in America, that vision of happiness is rooted in high-paying jobs that allow people to have big houses, nice cars and lots of stuff.   It is the image of happiness that is constantly featured in American media and is lifted up as the ideal that we should all be striving for.

One problem with this American definition of happiness is that it is increasingly difficult to attain.  There are a limited number of high-paying careers, and as the recent recession demonstrates, big houses and fancy cars can easily disappear when the economy runs into trouble.  Another problem with this definition of happiness – and perhaps the biggest problem of all – is that even if one is able to get the high-paying job, buy the big house and drive the fancy car, it doesn’t necessarily lead one to be happy.  In fact, the world in general and America in particular are filled with wealthy people who, according to multiple studies, aren’t very happy.

So, as Race to Nowhere so clearly demonstrates, we are raising generations of children who are pressured into striving for a particular model of success that they are told will lead them to be happy and yet, for many, many people, doesn’t actually make them happy.  In fact, the film shows that many of these kids are becoming psychologically and physically ill in this journey to supposed happiness, and some of them are even taking their own lives.  No route to happiness is worth such a high price.

Faith communities, and the traditions they represent, have a lot to say about happiness, and in the case of the Christian tradition the definition of happiness actually has nothing to do with the accumulation of wealth.  In fact, the Christian definition of happiness has everything to do with giving wealth away!  Including the most valuable thing we have:  ourselves.

For Christians, our goal should be to live a life that is deeply rooted in God.  And when we ask how we are to do that, when we want to know what such a deeply rooted life looks like, we look to the example of Jesus, whom we proclaim to be a human life filled with God.  When we look at the life of Christ with the question, “What leads to happiness?”, we don’t see anything close to the American definition of happiness that is being pressed upon our children.  The definition of happiness in the life of Christ is something quite different – it is a definition comprised of three loves.

Love of God

The first of these loves is the love of God.  For me, to love God is to be in love with, well, love!  And it is to be in love with everything that the love of God touches.  And that, of course, is pretty much everything.  It is also to be in love with the passion of God:  the passion for justice, the passion for what the Jewish tradition likes to name as the repairing of the world.  It is to be in love with creation, to be in love with diversity, to be in love with the fact that there is such a thing as love.  To be in love with awe and wonder.  This is not something that requires anything but to wake up and look with new eyes.  Do I live in this dynamic of God’s love all the time?  Sadly, no.  But there are moments almost every day when I lift my head from what I am doing and allow myself to be overwhelmed by the simple “is-ness” of life, and that moment has the power to lift me out of whatever state I happen to be in and to simply touch life in amazement.  And it makes me happy!

Love of Neighbor

To extend this sense of God’s love, this sense of holy amazement in the face of life, to others is to love one’s neighbor.  To be able to see the person before you not as a problem but as a gift is to love that person.  To recognize another person’s need not as an inconvenience or annoyance but as an opportunity to serve the Christ who dwells within that person is to love one’s neighbor.  To serve others seems often like it requires a lot of us in our over-scheduled lives but when we actually do it, we find a sense of satisfaction and happiness that nothing else really matches.

Love of Self

Yes, we are supposed to love ourselves – remember?  in the same way we love our neighbors.  But this isn’t a kind of narcissistic love that smiles smugly to itself, secure in the “knowledge” that it is better than everyone else around us.  No, the love with which we are called to love ourselves is a love that sees our own imperfections and limitations and realizes that these don’t diminish us.  Rather, they are to be celebrated as a part of who we are.  Imagine if we could teach our children that they are good enough even when they apply themselves and get a C or a D, or when they can’t make the sports team or don’t win first chair in the orchestra section.  To realize at a very deep level that I am loved and accepted as I am is deeply liberating and brings a deep sense of happiness.

I am not suggesting that we should not strive to be the best human beings we can be.  But that has very little to do with outward adornments that we have convinced ourselves make for a happy life.  It has to do with living meaningfully, with cultivating a sense of joy over even the smallest, simplest things in life, and settling into a sense of peace that is rooted in our status as Beloved not in the grades we get, the jobs we hold or the cars we drive.


Oh, Hell

An evangelical Christian minister by the name of Rob Bell has recently caused quite a stir within the evangelical Christian community and beyond by suggesting that perhaps God does not consign anyone to hell.  There are some people who have predictably labelled him as a Bible-denying heretic.  But so novel is his approach believed to be that I was surprised at the gym one morning to see him being interviewed on one of the network morning shows.  To see all the publicity, one might think that no one has ever had this thought before.

Of course, the reality is that many Christians have had trouble with hell, and the thought of a loving God consigning someone to it, for a very long time.  In fact, centuries ago, many earlier Christian writers had deep doubts about hell as an eternal destination for anyone.  They were unable to dispense entirely with the concept, but many of them developed theologies that enabled them to ultimately get beyond it.  For almost all of these writers, as with Rob Bell, they simply could not reconcile their sense of the deep love of God with the concept of eternal punishment and condemnation.  After all, if we, as human parents, could not imagine torturing our children for their misdeeds, how could we possibly assign such a desire to God?

What is most interesting to me is that many of the early Christian writers came to the conclusion that the image of hell as a place of fire and torment was an apt metaphor of what God’s love would feel like to a soul that refused to receive it.  In other words, they saw “hell” not as a punishment given by God to those who were evil, but rather as a reality that we ourselves created by our own decision to refuse God’s love for us.

In fact, Bell suggests in his book that heaven and hell are not places we go after death, but rather speak to the state of our current relationship with Christ.  In other words (and these are my words), if we are centered and rooted in Christ, then we experience life as grace-filled, we experience the kingdom of God as a present reality, and that may be symbolized by the word “heaven.”  If we are not centered and rooted in Christ, then we may often experience life as the opposite.

When Jesus spoke of “hell”, he was speaking metaphorically.  The word that is translated into English as “hell” in the Gospels is the word “Gahenna”, which refers to a garbage dump that existed outside Jerusalem in Jesus’ day in which the trash was always burning.  It is, sadly, an apt metaphor for the way life (or the soul) can feel when the love of God is refused.

And if love is to be genuine, then the freedom to not love must always be there.  We might ask ourselves how it is that someone would refuse the love of God?  I think it is because that love requires something of us.  While certain groups of Christians historically and in our own day may favor the instilling of fear in people as a tool for transformation, the reality is that any sort of transformation based on fear is probably not genuine.  Fear can bring outward conformity, but it is seldom able to produce interior change.  That sort of transformation depends on love, and God’s love asks us to change.  We all know how difficult change can be.  Often, we prefer ourselves as we are.  Some people, it seems to me, could hold this preference so deeply that they would refuse God’s love rather than risk the invitation to change, growth and transformation that comes with that love.

I must admit that when I first heard of all this talk about Rob Bell and his questioning of what is regarded as the traditional Christian view of hell, I was irritated.  The Christians among whom I have grown up and lived all my life have for the most part believed something close to what Rob Bell believes about hell.  It’s not really a new idea, and it frustrated me that so many people were treating it as if it were.  However, when I had the chance to think about it a bit more, my irritation changed to gratitude.  Because clearly, Rob Bell is reaching an audience of people that all those people I know and have known in my own religious life obviously haven’t been able to reach.  And if that means that more people begin to see Christianity as truly being about love rather than fear and condemnation – well, that’s something to be grateful for.

When “Why?” Is Not the Question

We have all been shocked and horrified by the images coming out of Japan over this past week following the earthquake and tsunami that devastated that country and which has led to an on-going nuclear crisis, as well.  Certainly no heart could be untouched by the magnitude of this tragedy, one that will affect countless lives for years to come.

Inevitably, it seems, in the face of such a horrific tragedy caused by a natural event, many people are led to ask “Why did such a thing happen?”  I think this question is tied to a very natural human need for the things that happen in our lives to have meaning.   Many theologians and philosophers from a number of different traditions have written about human beings as creatures of meaning.  And, indeed, I think it is this desire for meaning, this need for meaning that often gives rise to the human spiritual quest.

But while the search for meaning is very close to the heart of spirituality, all of our spiritual traditions, including the Christian tradition, acknowledge that there are things in life that confound our desire to make meaning, and that ultimately leave the question of “Why?” unanswered.

Within the Judeo-Christian tradition, the biblical Book of Job seeks to remind us of this.  You are probably familiar with the story:  Job is said to be a “righteous man” in whom God finds no fault.  He is beset by a series of terrible tragedies, which ultimately leave him demanding an explanation from God.  All of Job’s friends come to him and give him what were the standard theological explanations of the time:  you must have sinned, they tell Job, or someone in your family sinned.  Yet we, as readers, know that none of these explanations is true, and that Job appropriately rejects them all.  At the end of the story, Job experiences a vision of God as a whirlwind, in which God says to Job, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? ”  It is the first in a long series of questions designed to remind Job that he cannot penetrate completely the mystery of life and creation.  At the end of this long series of questions, Job acknowledges, “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”

The spiritual lesson of Job is that sometimes we cannot make things be meaningful, no matter how hard we try.  Sometimes, we are reduced to silence, to acknowledging that our search for meaning sometimes leads us to a humble acknowledgement that life happens in ways that defy explanation.  In such moments, the most spiritually beneficial question to ask is not “Why?” but “How do I respond?”  Indeed, I have come to believe over my years of pastoral practice that “Why?” is seldom a spiritually useful question when people are confronted by suffering in whatever form it comes.   To pursue the “Why?” question leads us into all kinds of strange territory that very often ends up with some version of  “God did this to me (or to “us” or to “them”) because…..”   And what comes after the “because” ranges anywhere from “it’s a mystery I cannot understand” to “God is angry”  or “I/we/they have been unfaithful”.   Most of the time, pursuing the “Why?” question leads to an image of God that is somewhere between a spoiled child throwing a temper tantrum because he didn’t get his way and a vindictive terrorist thug.

The “How do we respond?” question, however, leads us into much more fertile spiritual territory.  The “How?” question is a heart question rather than a head question, and puts us in touch with our own sense of compassion, rooted in God’s compassion.  And as we touch compassion, we find our way into love — the kind of love the New Testament talks about:  love in action, love in service, love reaching out to help those who are in need.  The “How?” question leads us into an understanding of God as one who suffers with the world rather than one who inflicts suffering on the world.  It leads us to a God of deep love and compassion.

And is not this the God we see in Jesus?  Is not Jesus the one who suffers with us on the cross?  God is not the crucifier in the Gospel but is the one who, in Jesus, is crucified.  God is the Good Samaritan who has compassion on the one laying by the side of the road.  God is NOT the one who beat up and robbed the man before leaving him by the side of the road.

It saddens me when I hear Christian leaders suggesting that the earthquake and tsunami are somehow a deliberate act of God because of some moral fault on the part of the Japanese.  Even the governor of the region which includes Tokyo, who is not a Christian, suggested that these disasters were heaven’s punishment for Japanese greed.  Such statements are stunning examples of how our need to create meaning can lead us into rather dark places.

It is true that human suffering can lead to new insights and transformed lives given enough time.  But God does not inflict suffering on us in order to teach us anything.  It is crystal clear to me that such a God is not the God of Jesus.

So let us abandon the “Why?” question as we hold the people of Japan in our hearts.  Let us rather be about the “How?” question, discerning how we can respond with the heart of Jesus, to extend compassion to those whose lives have been so completely and suddenly altered by the natural systems and processes of this fragile earth, our island home, not by the willful act of some vindictive divine force.

Fasting from Our Bad Habits

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent for the Western churches, including, of course, The Episcopal Church.  In the liturgy for Ash Wednesday, we hear the following from what is called The Invitation to a Holy Lent:

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. (emphasis mine).

This invitation is, of course, rooted in long centuries of tradition, and at the heart of that tradition was the practice of fasting.  Most ancient Christians (and, it must be said, many modern ones, as well) would cut out whole categories of food from their diets during the six weeks of Lent, and really put themselves in touch with the spirit of self-denial.  In that time, however, food was probably the only thing that could be used to create that atmosphere of self-denial.  The fact is that most people led relatively spartan lives in the time when this tradition arose, and there wasn’t much to cut out.

Fasting and self-denial today, it seems to me, are about way more than food.  The self-examination to which Lent calls us invites us to consider the overall shape of our lives, and to ask ourselves where our lives are out of shape.  What are the bad habits that we have developed that keep us from becoming the people God invites us to be?  What are the obstacles in our lives that prevent us from taking the shape that God dreams for us?  What prevents us from experiencing God’s grace and living lives of meaning, peace and joy?  Perhaps we do overeat or eat food that is not good for us. On the other hand, perhaps the habits that most block our growth into the image of God have nothing to do with our eating habits.  Maybe they have to do with bad habits that have developed in some of our relationships.  Maybe what we most need to fast from is technology.  Maybe we need to cultivate new habits that bring us more into harmony with our environment.  Maybe the form of self-denial that makes the most sense for us is denying ourselves a little play time in order to devote that time to meditation, Centering Prayer or some other devotional practice.  The only way to know what habits need to be abandoned or cultivated is to take some time to examine our lives, to explore their shape and contour, and to see where adjustments need to be made.

Lent, I think, has a bit of a reputation as a “downer” in the church year.  We have conceived of it as a negative, imagining that we need to invent ways of self-denial to be faithful to the season, and it makes us grumpy.  But Lent is not about self-denial for the sake of self-denial.  Lent is about pruning for the sake of growth.  Lent is about giving ourselves permission to let go of old, unhealthy patterns in favor of new, more life-giving ones.  It is true that the ashes of Ash Wednesday remind us of our own mortality.  But it is also true that ashes are very fertile, and that fertility can nurture new growth.  It is, after all, out of ashes that phoenixes rise — not only the phoenixes of mythology, but whatever phoenix is waiting inside us to arise.

So if I were to give out my own Lenten invitations, apart from the liturgical one I quoted above, I would invite you to make Lent as positive an experience as you can.  Lent is not about dying, but it is about being reborn in the shape that God dreams for you.  If you were to devote yourself in Lent to discovering what really gives you life, perhaps you would arrive at Easter not simply thinking of Jesus’ resurrection but also celebrating the new life that is rising in you because of the stones that you have spent the time of Lent rolling away.

Reclaiming Lent

This coming Sunday is the last before Lent begins, and thanks to Dr. Alexander Shaia, I was recently reminded of the origins of this season of the church year.  The seeds for the current shape of Lent are found at the end of the third and beginning of the fourth centuries, when Christians were finding themselves increasingly in conflict with one another over theological matters.  And, they were unsettled by this conflict.   Christian leaders determined that what was necessary in that conflicted atmosphere was an annual opportunity for the churches to remember where their unity truly lay:  not in doctrinal precision, but in a common commitment to following the path of Christ into transformation.  Walking this path depended not so much on doctrine but on a common spiritual practice.  And so, it was decided that the church needed an annual retreat, one that all local communities would embrace at the same time.  Thus, what we now know as Lent was born.

Originally, the season between the start of Lent and Pentecost was only 12 days or so.  Over time, it got lengthened to the current 100 days.   And just as this season of retreat prior to Easter was about to begin, a particular Gospel story was told:  the story of the Transfiguration, which is indeed the story that will be heard in most lectionary-based churches this coming Sunday.

You may be familiar with the contours of this story:  Jesus takes the disciples Peter, James and John up on the mountain, and while they are there, they experience a vision, in which they see Jesus transfigured by a dazzling light that shines through him, and Moses and Elijah appear alongside of him.  Toward the end, they hear a voice confirming that Jesus is of God, and should be listened to.  When many people today hear this story, I suspect that the first question that arises in their minds is whether or not the story is true, in the sense that it is an accurate retelling of an historical event.  But this would not have occurred to the the Christians of the late third and early fourth centuries.  They told that story, and heard it, not out of any historical interest, but because it illumined something about their own lives.  In their view, the story was not so much about what happened with Jesus and his friends.  Rather, it was a story that showed them something important about themselves.

Alexander Shaia suggests that the story was told as a call to retreat, and it was designed to encourage people to remember who they truly were.   The story celebrates, he says, the “mutual gaze” of divinity and humanity.  The divinity is represented by Jesus, Moses and Elijah with humanity represented by Peter, James and John.  In most icons (traditional paintings) of this story,  the three divine figures are seen facing the three human figures.  It is here that divinity and humanity gaze at one another, realizing that they are really two sides of the same coin.  Humanity is meant to become by grace what divinity is by nature, and it is the nature of the divine to seek the transformation of the human.  So, the story of the transfiguration is told, just as Lent is about to begin, to remind people of the call of love, a divine love that seeks to love us into being our very best possible selves.  Lent is, by its nature, a time of self-reflection, a time to ask ourselves how we are doing on our Christian path.  Just as this period is about to begin, the transfiguration is meant to remind us that, far from being unworthy sinners, we are meant to shine with the radiance of the divine light, just as Jesus does in the story.  We are to become more and more like the Christ upon whom the disciples gaze on the mountain top.

If this strikes you as odd, as something you’ve never heard before, it may be because this interpretation is rooted in a very different understanding of the meaning of salvation and the Christian journey than is traditionally a part of Western Christianity — though, it has been part of Easter Christianity all along.  For Western Christians (Roman Catholics and all flavors of Protestantism),  salvation (and thus the Christian journey) tend to be seen through the lens of atonement.  That is, that Jesus came into the world to save us from our sins by sacrificing himself on the cross to appease the anger of God over humanity’s sinfulness.   When salvation and Christian life are viewed through this lens, then Lent becomes a time to dwell on how sinful we actually are so that, when Easter arrives, we can be thankful that God was willing to sacrifice his son to save us.  This perspective, as pervasive as it has been in the West, is fraught with trouble.  The Western Christian tradition has never been able to agree on a “theory of atonement”, that is, on how atonement works, because every theory involves huge problems.  What does it mean when God is seen as being unable to forgive us without human sacrifice — of God’s own son, no less?  What does this say about who God is?  Some have proposed that God didn’t want to sacrifice Jesus, but that it was necessary to pay satan to release human beings from his power.  Well, ifthat were the case, what does it mean that God has to pay satan at all?  Isn’t God supposed to be all-powerful?

But this atonement perspective was alien to the ancient church.  For them, salvation and the Christian journey were viewed not through the lens of atonement but through the lens of theosis, a Greek word which means to become God.  In Western Christian ears, it sounds blasphemous.  But it is not meant to be.  St. Athanasius, for example, said that “God became human so that humans could become God.”   He wasn’t the only ancient to talk this way, and neither he nor they were ever condemned as heretics, because what they were saying was consistent with the most ancient Christian understanding of what salvation was really about.  Through Christ, human beings could become by grace what Christ is by nature.  That is, we could become divine, we could grow more and more into the likeness of Christ.   As the Eastern Orthodox author Fredrica Matthews-Greene puts it, when viewed through the lens of theosis, salvation is seen as being restored to the image and likeness of God.  “It means God dwelling within us and filling us with God’s presence, a presence that gradually takes us over, so that although we remain ourselves, we are being made over into our true selves.”

Atonement is fundamentally based on a duality — the duality of good versus evil, of righteous versus sinful.  Theosis, however, is more unitive, seeing all of humanity and, indeed, the whole of creation as being called by a loving God to this fundamental and thorough transformation that Matthews-Greene so eloquently describes.  And God is all about unity and union.  And this is not a new age idea:  it is a very ancient Christian understanding, more ancient than the atonement perspective we are so accustomed to.

As we prepare to enter Lent this year, perhaps we  can reclaim a more ancient point of view.  Rather than focusing on Lent as a time to be mindful of our own sinfulness and our need for God to save us, perhaps we can focus on what sin really is:  obstacles to the process of transformation to which theosis points us.  What is it in our lives that keeps us from becoming more Christ-like?  And how might those obstacles be removed?  I invite you to carry the story of the transfiguration with you this Lent, and use it to remind you of who we are called to be.  Then, at Easter, perhaps you will be able to see the places in your own life where stones have been moved away with God’s help, allowing new life — authentic, divine life — to grow.